Saturday, August 16, 2014

Making It Up As They Go

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That's what I say!" 
-- From Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872) 

I have to admit to feeling rather like Alice recently. 

Yes, I'm aware that people will have varying opinions, and that there will inevitably be different interpretations of written works. There are a number of theologians, for example, that have strong but opposing interpretations of the scriptures on matters more than trivial, from pacifism and capital punishment to divorce and gender roles. In the business world, attorneys representing two different parties bound by an agreement or contract may argue for opposing interpretations of the same document. In politics, elected officials and pundits wage war every day over what the US Constitution does and does not "say". As long as the human race may endure, such debates will never cease.

What concerns me is just how malleable even those interpretations have become, especially with regard to the Constitution. Just as some Christians love to wave the Bible around, and proclaim their love loudly for the Word that they may never even read (yet they are certain of what it says and what it really means), public displays of affection for the US Constitution have become almost a requirement, especially for conservatives. I do not doubt that the men and women who swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States are, in fact, sincere in their devotion to the historical document, but I am concerned that they consider it as clay, rather than of iron. Varying interpretations aside, in order for anything to have any meaning at all, there must at least be some consistency, and consistency appears to have been mortally wounded by situational pragmatism. 

Certainly, there is nothing new with the political flip-flop. Both parties have waffled on a number of issues, and continue to do so, even though curious constituents today have technology at their disposal. One can pull up videos of a politician in campaign mode and compare them to his or her words as an elected official. Fact checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact can weed out reality from hearsay (or even engineered rumor). One recent example was the change in Senate rules known as the "nuclear option"; we can easily see for ourselves that President Obama and Harry Reid each argued against the very rule change in 2005 (when it would aid the Republican majority) that they supported just a few months ago (when it would be an advantage to Democrats). During the last presidential election, Mitt Romney was attacked by both the right and left for "being for it before he was against it", especially with regard to the hot-button issues of abortion and health care reform. It is obvious that such convenient changes in position plague both parties.

The recent focus on the Constitution of the United States, however, has caused these sadly commonplace turnarounds to evolve into something more dangerous. As mentioned earlier, there are a number of different opinions within the church on a number of issues, but the moment one adds, "the Bible says...", the line is crossed. No longer is the speaker giving a personal opinion, but wading into fact (or untruth); such escalation should not be taken lightly. Likewise, when people start throwing the Constitution around, I tend to be more critical of the speaker - and when that speaker becomes self-contradictory from a lack of consistent interpretation, I can't help but notice. 

Graham to Constitution: All of Me Loves All Some of You

Is it possible to simultaneously praise the Constitution and propose trashing some of it? Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) apparently thinks so. In the video below, Senator Graham responds to a prodding Piers Morgan concerning the second amendment.

To clarify, I agree with Senator Graham on the issue of the second amendment, and said as much in a recent post about the gun control debate. Surely, constitutional rights must not be subject to the approval of others. Senator Graham's own words at the end of this video are worth noting: 
"...if my individual rights under the Constitution are limited by the sensibility of others, I don't have a whole lot of rights."
But a subsequent amendment begins:
SECTION 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.
Yet, Senator Graham recently proposed a repeal of the 14th amendment. His apparent devotion to the COTUS extends to some amendments, but not others; his rights are protected, those of others, not so much. To be fair, Republicans split over this issue, with many objecting to the re-write, but it is interesting to note that while the majority of Republicans have labeled President Obama's efforts to expand background checks or to ban certain rifles as "an attempt to repeal the second amendment", none have suggested that Senator Graham's literal attempt to repeal a constitutional amendment makes him a threat to the Constitution. 

Birther Backtrack

No need to go into the history of this one. Anyone of legal voting age in 2008 (and perhaps even some younger) will recall the nationwide outrage over Barack Obama's place of birth. Although there was no Kenyan birth certificate to document the claim, approximately 40 percent of Republicans still believed that Obama was not born in the United States in July of 2010. Why was his birthplace of such interest to conservatives, especially those who considered themselves part of "the tea party"? The answer is found in Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
The interpretation of this clause was that Obama would have had to been born in the United States in order to be eligible for the presidency. I disagree with this interpretation, but again, my issue is not so much with a different view than with gross inconsistency. The Tea Party proclaimed that Obama was an ineligible fraud. So as to not also disqualify John McCain, who was born in Panama, Conservative Daily added a bit of a rider:
The phrase “natural born citizen” is widely interpreted to mean being born on American soil or being born of two American citizens....Therefore, the question becomes whether or not Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. was born in Hawaii or was he in fact born in Kenya and therefore INELIGIBLE to be the U.S. President? 
The message was repeated over and over: his foreign father was of concern; he must be able to produce an American birth certificate in order to be eligible.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading that in a recent poll of Tea Party conservatives, the one person with the highest amount of support in the next presidential election was none other than Rafael "Ted" Cruz, the foreign-born son of a white mother who was an American citizen by birth and an ethnic, foreign-born father. Even before this poll, Forbes Magazine pointed out the obvious and unavoidable double standard given the political rise of Senator Cruz. Apparently, the Constitution means just what some choose it to mean, and only until they choose for it to mean something else.

Following Suit

Back in 1998, Republican Whip Tom DeLay was pushing for a vote of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, for lying under oath about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. While some Democrats (and even President Clinton himself) were trying to steer the House response toward "censure", DeLay countered that the only recourse for the House of Representatives to reprimand the President's actions was the process of impeachment. Anything else "violates the rules of the House", Representative DeLay warned. "It's unconstitutional. It's a terrible precedent." An article in the Washington Post (December 15, 1998) echoed the same:
In their decision to remove censure as an option in the debate over how to punish the president, House Republican leaders have found comfort and cover in the Constitution, arguing that voting on the lesser penalty would violate the separation of powers and create a precedent not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.

What exactly is constitutional? Concerning the process of impeachment, the Constitution states the following:

Article I, Section 2: "The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have to sole power of impeachment."

Article I, Section 3: "The Senate shall have to sole Power to try all Impeachments. When siting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

Article II, Section 4: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Once again, my point here is not to support President Obama or to take sides one way or the other if the use of executive orders qualifies as "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors". Some believe that the President has acted unlawfully, and some do not, largely by party lines, and the Constitution does give the House of Representatives the sole discretion of deciding what qualifies as an impeachable offense. They are then to vote on it, and if there is more "yea" than "nay", the case goes to the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice. This is the avenue provided to the House by the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution does not mention "censure", nor allow for the Speaker of the House to sue the President on behalf of the entire House of Representatives. In spite of this inconvenient truth, the House voted on July 30th to authorize such action. In other words, Speaker Boehner suggested that the President had acted beyond the authority granted to him by the Constitution of the United States, and that in response the House would act beyond the authority granted to it by the Constitution of the United States. While suggesting that the President was trying to circumvent the process of amending law, House Republicans were writing HRES 676, which appears to be an attempt to circumvent the process of impeachment.

Calls to impeach the current president have been fairly constant over the past few years; in fact, the cry to impeach Barack Obama began as soon as he won the 2008 election, before he even took office. Much like Super Bowl Champion hats and T-shits, there were boxes of signs and bumper stickers urging impeachment ready to go in case the McCain/Palin ticket was unsuccessful. In my opinion, while there are some actions by the Obama administration that I can't agree with, nothing is so egregious as to require a vote of impeachment. I understand that many Republicans disagree with that, and they are welcome to make a case for impeachment. Going through the back door, however, is exactly what they claim to be fighting against.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Phoning It In

Hey, Kelly, I just got the coolest new phone. I'm so rad.
No, I am not writing this blog post using only the tiny keypad on my smartphone. That would be madness.

However, like many people today, I do use my phone for the majority of my online interactions, including Facebook posts and e-mail. Although it is a "phone", I rarely use it for actually speaking with anyone, and since I don't want my R2D2 ringtone to go off unexpectedly at work or during a church sermon, the ringer is typically off. I rarely even use it for texting. I don't take "selfies".  For me, it's merely a small tablet, a way to access the internet at any hour of the day. I may never be able to mentally download Kung Fu or how to pilot a B-212 helicopter like in The Matrix, but being able to get just about any information at any time is pretty awesome. Besides, I'm pretty sure a Matrix-style download would be outside my Verizon data plan.

There are legitimate concerns dealing with cell phone use in public. Surely, if someone is in line at a fast food restaurant or at he bank, it should be turned off before getting up to the counter. There are numerous public service announcements about the dangers of texting and driving, as well as the embarrassment quite likely to come from sharing questionable photos (right, Anthony Weiner?). Like any object, a smartphone can be misused. There are cases in which using a phone could be considered rude, but I, for one, think the phone backlash has gone a little too far.

There are a number of memes, posts, and other criticisms all over the internet about how people should stop using their cell phones (so much). The irony, of course, is that these are often read and shared via a smartphone - just there are thousands of posts on Facebook complaining about Facebook. This sort of finger-pointing is easy; we can assume the post is about that guy or girl over there using their phone, not us. The truth is that we all have erred at some point; we have all been at least perceived to be that jerk by someone who was waiting for us to do something else. Still, I don't think that increased use of phones/tiny computers is necessarily a bad thing.

Recently, a friend shared a viral post by an anonymous poster who claimed to be a restaurant owner in New York, about an unnamed restaurant, who hired an unnamed firm to help them look into complaints about their service. Of course, this "study" was only published on the "Rants and Raves" section of Craigslist. While it appears to be a hoax, it spread like wildfire. People were happy to have some sort of quantified "proof" that (other) people using their phones were destroying our society, starting with restaurants. Some excerpts from the post:
7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, they showed them something on their phone and spent an average of 5 minutes of the waiter's time...
26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food...
27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another 5 minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving....

The post concludes that the average guest time in 2004 (from being seated to leaving) was just about an hour, and that in 2014 it had almost doubled (nearly two hours) - yet their establishment is busier than it was in 2004. I'm not sure how that is mathematically possible, but we already know that viral posts and fact rarely travel together. I'm not saying that there isn't some truth behind the post - I am sure that many waiters and waitresses have had to wait longer because of diners doing something on a phone. If the author had been more conservative on the numbers, estimating that the average stay at perhaps ten minutes more than in the past, that would have been much more believable.

People tend to assume the worst about someone using their phone. For example, if someone sees a single mom sitting on a park bench, using her phone while her young son plays on the playground in front of her, many naturally assume she is a bad mom. She's ignoring her child, who may even be calling "!" repeatedly, and we'd never do something so rude. Of course, if we knew that she was setting up Skype so that she could show her husband in Afghanistan images of his son at play, we might feel differently, but that's not our first thought, is it? I'm thinking it has something to do with the phone/tablet itself, with technology, rather than the actual act of not answering her child. Let's say she is merely chatting on the phone (text or voice) with her best friend. If we see this situation happen via the phone, we may be far more likely to consider the mother as rude, but if she is standing there in person, speaking with her friend face to face, while the son tugs on her coat trying to get her attention, we may be more likely to consider the son rude for interrupting.

I get this sometimes myself. Especially before they were as common as they are now, I used to get stares in church from people seeing me use the phone during the sermon. I am sure they thought I was doing something inappropriate, but I was merely opening my Bible. Apparently, silent flat screens are more distracting to some than the flutter of onion-skin paper. Likewise, people might assume I can't read a (paper) map if I'm looking at the same map on a screen. The guy reading a newspaper as he drinks coffee at the diner is cool, but the guy reading the same newspaper on a phone should move along. Some might see a tourist taking photos with his phone and think that they are somehow missing the experience, but if that same tourist was taking photos with an old-school 35 mm camera, they are doing it right.

Part of it must be the inevitable backlash against technology. Our grandparents were likely warned by our great grandparents that putting a television in the family room would destroy the family, and new advances are often considered evil, especially if not understood.  Anti-technology sentiment is particularly strong in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: the good forces are those closest to primitive nature (the Shire is "all that's good and green in the world"), while evil relies on technology. Saruman is described as having "a mind like metal and wheels", and the Uruk-hai are created in a hive of furnaces and gears. Of course, the LOTR books sit on my bookshelf, produced at least in part by the destruction of trees, and the movies, as well as the DVD player, are products of technology.

Our society continues to change, and technological advances do have some impact. People are waiting longer to marry than on previous generations, and teen pregnancy rates continue to fall. I'm certainly not suggesting that smartphone use by teens is responsible for a decline in teenage sexual activity, but in all seriousness, considering drug use, underage drinking, gang violence - all the things that "those kids today" could be doing instead - I am relatively fine with someone keeping to themselves, reading or chatting, using a computer-phone. It's really not so bad, is it?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rendering Unto Caesar

I'm not sure to what degree author Suzanne Collins researched the Roman Empire before writing The Hunger Games and its two sequels, but there are more than a few similarities between the fictional Panem and the Roman Empire in decline, during the time of Christ. Life in the Capitol was filled with wine and song, while taxation increased the further one went out from it. Iniquitous leaders were skilled at projecting an image of benevolence, but often had administration officials killed when they felt threatened. Hedonistic crowds enjoyed watching games in which people pulled from conquered outlying territories were forced to kill each other. Existence in the outlying districts could be oppressive.

The setting for much of the New Testament is in one such district, Judaea. Local politicians and religious leaders had some autonomy there, but they also knew that the key to holding on to any local power was to remain in good graces with the Empire. This required a delicate balance on their part: they could not appear too aligned with Rome, or the people would despise them, but they also could not challenge Rome without grave consequences. Seeing that Jesus was gaining quite a following (and that he was often critical of these religious leaders), they plotted to eliminate this threat. From the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
Surely his reply was a bit of a disappointment not only for those who had hoped to put him on Rome's watch list, but also for those who had hoped he would be more confrontational for their own sake. Many had started to wonder if this guy might be their (earthly) salvation from Roman rule, the long-awaited king that would rise up and destroy Rome, liberating the Jewish nation. The sixth chapter of John records that the people wanted to make Jesus their king "by force".  Of course, that wasn't the plan; in speaking with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, Christ states, "my kingdom is not of this world."

Judging by recent events, it appears that many followers of Jesus in America today never got the memo. The recent federal court ruling against the state of Indiana's ban on gay marriage has caused the chorus again to swell: "The Bible says it's wrong, so we must get our way legally!" The song's verses spell out the doom of all society, typically following slippery-slope mentions of plural marriages, pedophilia, and bestiality; usually a charge of infringement on religious freedom is thrown in for good measure.

I would be one of the loudest voices among them, if the state was somehow mandating that I (or anyone else) would be forced into a marriage with a person of the same sex. However, such a strong reaction against the very idea that the secular government may allow things legally that individuals (or even churches) may oppose on religious grounds is puzzling. Legality does not make something morally correct, and even within the church there are great differences of opinion in what is or is not sinful: drinking, dancing, swearing, playing cards, second marriages, birth control - the list goes on and on. Of course, all of those things are legal options for me, whether I agree or not.

Perhaps part of the problem is the failure to understand that the church and the state have different roles, which is why there must be "a wall of separation between church and state." Fortunately, we had reasonable voices at our founding as a nation that demanded protection of religious liberty. In a pluralistic society, church and state must disagree, as they have opposite roles. The state must ensure freedom and equality; in other words, they must not endorse one thing over another, they must not discriminate. It is the church's job to discriminate; they must uphold a specific code or creed as superior, by definition. A church can exclude persons from church membership based on action or even belief, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" can not refuse the same citizenship or rights based on creed.

Another recent challenge to the government (specifically, to the Affordable Care Act, more commonly called "Obamacare") from organized religion has been over the mandate that companies offer insurance, that they pay a portion of those premiums, and that those plans must include coverage for contraception. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes the use of contraception and has argued that forcing them, in effect, to pay for something they oppose is a violation of their religious liberty. The Supreme Court will soon announce a decision on this matter, and with it split so closely (5 conservatives and 4 liberals), it could go either way - but the argument itself does not hold water in either a historical (biblical) or a modern (legal) context.

As illustrated in the story above, Christ himself paid taxes that he knew were used in large part for things he did not condone. Quite plainly, an organization that claims to emulate Christ should do as he taught, to render unto Caesar what is Ceasar's, without expectation that the government do as they would have them do with those funds. While American colonialists were willing to kill to obtain independence from a system that taxed them without representation, this was not Christ's example; there was no hint of representation associated with the revenues collected for Rome, and yet he twice supported tax payment (and later Paul would urge obedience to the government and tax payment in the thirteenth chapter of Romans). Unlike the usual reply from the American mentality, Jesus did not respond with a concern for his own rights or a knee-jerk opposition to earthly authority.

The argument is also faulty on a modern basis, in that there are a number of Christian sects, especially Anabaptists, that promote pacifism and oppose violence. Yet, persons belonging to these sects must still pay the same taxes as everyone, even though approximately 20 percent of the budget goes to the defense department. In a time of war, that means that the monies paid by such groups is actually going to pay for the bombs and bullets that kill human beings, sometimes child civilians. There are numerous groups that oppose capital punishment, and yet some states will use a portion of state taxes paid for this purpose (it is not practiced in all states). There might be some conservative sect that opposes women working outside the home, but taxes paid by individuals with such beliefs may still be used by the state or even federal government on programs to advance career opportunities for women. In short, the concept of religious liberty does not prohibit another person, who may not share my views, from ever using funds I give them for some purpose I would condemn. No matter where you are on the political spectrum - liberal, conservative, moderate (and especially if libertarian) - I can guarantee that the government is doing something with your money that you would find repulsive. Even in the course of normal congressional elections (both state and federal), 49% of the voters may have chosen the other candidate, and thus do not approve of the winner's agenda, but everyone pays their salary, agreement or not.

The Violent Take it by Force

In no way am I suggesting that Christians should not be involved in political activism. Citizens of the United States, no matter their faith, enjoy freedoms almost unheard of through most of human history, and it would be rather discriminatory in itself to deny the voice of those aligned with a particular faith in a democratic republic. At the same time, we must be aware that others may have different views on a number of subjects, even within the very same congregation. Thus, what one person may see as an attack on his or her religion may be in complete alignment of another's understanding of the same religion. Disagreements can be had without tactics of intimidation.

As a case study, let us examine the controversy over Chick Fil A back in 2012. Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy, in a radio interview, expressed his views against same-sex marriage. Given his background, the philosophy of Chick Fil A as a company, and the conservative-Christian radio show Mr. Cathy was being interviewed on, the content (and even tone) of his comments should have surprised no one. While liberal groups and the mayor of Boston at the time suggested boycotts of Chick Fil A in response, even the ACLU (supportive of same-sex marriage) defended the rights of Mr. Cathy to believe (and speak) against same-sex marriage without fear of government interference or economic threats.
Yeah, not so much.

This would have been a great opportunity to have a meaningful national conversation, but it instead became a national shouting match. Mike Huckabee called for a "Chick Fil A Appreciation Day" (note: not appreciation of free speech or even religion, but of a corporation) that was, to be honest, intended as a show of force. The intended message was clear: the majority of people who eat here are in agreement against same-sex marriage, we outnumber you, we have more money. These supporters were not in the habit of appearing en masse to simply to defend the right of business leadership to decide its own message, as they certainly did not hold a World Partners Appreciation Day to defend their leadership's decision in 2014 to simply allow homosexuals to work there (quite the opposite). In both support and boycott, the "Christian" response was to flex their own muscle, their economic power, rather than show compassion.

In the Sermon on the Mount, believers are referred to as salt and as light. But salt does not compete with food, and there is certainly no mandate to overpower it. In the same way, some light is quite helpful, but it is also capable of causing blindness. There is no mandate for Christians to collectively throw their weight around politically or economically to achieve dominion over the national culture. It is unfortunate that even faith is not immune from the pervasiveness of American culture, that almost instinctual response to conflict that says, "I'll show you". It's the same attitude expressed more coarsely by Toby Keith in his reactionary 2002 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue". It's the American way.

Perhaps this explains the apparent fear behind various posts that I've seen predicting that the current majority - Christians, Caucasians, even speakers of English as a first language in some parts of the country - may soon become a statistical minority. At least on a subconscious level, we know how minorities have been treated. Like Macbeth, we fear that we may someday be the victim of the same sort of disrespect (if not disenfranchisement) that we have (at the least) allowed.

Kingdom v Kingdom

The relationship between the state, culture, and Christianity was of particular interest to 19th century Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard. In the "concluding unscientific" postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard argues that true faith (or, "religiousness") is inward, and as such can't be touched by cultural norms or restrictions. His words then (in 1846) retain a particular relevance to the state of religion today.
S. Kierkegaard
"When at times religiousness in the Church and state has wanted legislation and police as an aid in protecting itself against the comic [critic], this may be very well intentioned; but the question is to what extent the ultimate determining factor is religious, and it does the comic an injustice to regard it as an enemy of the religious. The comic is no more an enemy of the religious - which, on the contrary, everything serves and obeys - then the dialectical. But the religiousness that essentially lays claim to outwardness, essentially makes outwardness commensurable, certainly must watch its step and fear more for itself (that it does not become esthetic) than fear the comic, which could legitimately help it to open its eyes."
Simply put, reducing religion to a set of cultural positions is already admitting defeat. Yes, it is nice to live in a nation where faith is protected (and Kierkegaard certainly approved of the concept of separation of church and state), but faith is untouchable by earthly authorities. It does not require that the government agree, that we pay no taxes, or that we not face any conflict for our beliefs. It certainly does not require that we impose our will on those who believe differently.

Again referencing the Sermon on the Mount, Christ instructed that, should a Roman soldier command you to walk a mile (likely carrying armor or some other load for him, as was the rule at the time), that the response was not to fight the power (as tempting as that is), but to "walk with him two". Not only would refusal to walk the first mile be against the law, but using one's religious beliefs to get out of some obligation (including the Affordable Care Act) could easily be seen as convenient - perhaps the "conviction" was manufactured simply to get out of having to pay one's fair share. However, if due to our convictions we do more than required, or serve where there is no gain to ourselves, how is this not a greater impression?

Or, more directly, why is it that (some) faith-based organizations can throw millions toward specific candidates or to efforts to pass some legislation it sees as favorable (or to defeat legislation it does not approve of), much of which amounts to nothing (especially if their side should lose), yet not provide for those in need (especially non-Christians)? Perhaps the Church is not here to serve itself?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Second Amendment Rumpus

It seems to me that every decade or two, almost as if by human nature, society must deal with some great panic. Some of these are reactions to real events, such as the stock market crash of 1929 or the terrorist plot of 2001; events such as these throw us all into understandable distress as we deal with uncertainty. However, real events are not necessary fuel for mass hysteria. In spite of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, it turns out that most actors in Hollywood during the 1950's were not, in fact, Communist agents. "Y2K" did not render all of our power stations, computer networks, and ATMs useless. The world did not end in 1988 or 1999 or 2011 or 2012.  Even though Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and won re-election in 2012, numerous prophets of doom were incorrect in that, to date, there has still been no proposal to confiscate firearms or to repeal the second amendment.

I find it quite difficult to discuss any aspect of gun use in America in an open forum (like Facebook) because the vast majority of argument - on both sides - is built on misinformation. While I don't believe that the government is plotting to steal privately-held guns, I also don't believe that gun owners are irresponsible, or that the mere presence of guns are a detriment to society. I can't begin to understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child to gun violence, but I have to confess that there may not be an effective legislative response, no matter how well-intentioned.

There has been a lot of debate about the wording of the second amendment, and what the intent of the "founding fathers" was in adding it to the Bill of Rights. I will concur that the simple fact of it being the second amendment implies particular importance, being listed next after the five freedoms of the first amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition of grievances. Since the second amendment itself refers first to "a well regulated militia", some have suggested that the right applies only to those in military service, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller) that it does guarantee an individual's right to bear arms independent of association with a militia. This was upheld in 2010 (McDonald (et al) v City of Chicago, Illinois), in which Justice Samuel Alito stated, "it is clear that the Framers . . . counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty." Even Supreme Court decisions can be wrong, and/or later reversed, but I would agree with the fundamental right of individual ownership. I believe that an individual gun owner does have every right to use that weapon in defense of his (or her) own family and even property, but I should also note that this passage, and others from our founding fathers, indicate that the intent was not "each man for himself", but rather the need for a common defense. The second amendment is concerned primarily with "the security of a free State", indicating that the mindset was more concerned with the impact to society than to individuals.

With the first half pretty well decided, impassioned debates continue over the latter half: "...the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Does it mean all arms? Is regulation a form of infringement? Does "bear" mean one can carry a gun everywhere? Can anyone be denied a firearm for any reason? Can the federal or state government require training, a waiting period, or registration?

Today, there are an estimated 300 million guns in the US, the vast majority in the hands of private citizens. The USA is, by far, the nation with the most guns, both in raw number and per capita. I should point out, however, that there are different ways to describe gun ownership in America, and each side manipulates the statistics to their perceived greatest advantage. While the number of guns divided by the number of people produces a number like the one above, it is also true that the majority of US households do not have a gun. The reason for this is that many households with a gun have more than one. Likewise, depending on what the desired outcome is (right or left), statistics can show that gun ownership in the US is on the rise (especially in just the past few years), or that it is on a downward trend...and that violent crime is on the rise, or in decline, with implications that more (or less) guns are the reason why. In my research, I have found no convincing parallel either way.

Agreement with the Right

As stated earlier, I concur with recent Supreme Court rulings that individuals do have a constitutional right to firearms, for any lawful purpose. Some people hunt, others enjoy shooting as a pastime (typically at clay pigeons or a target at the shooting range). Some are merely collectors of weapons, perhaps even as investments, and have no intention of ever pulling the trigger. Some have purchased weapons as a means of self-defense. As for myself, I have never owned a gun (that didn't fire either water or balls of paint), and may never do so. The decision to own or not to own is one guaranteed by law (except for when George Washington had a little government-decreed "individual mandate" of his own requiring men of a certain age to purchase a gun and certain supplies).

This is why I cringe just a little when I hear comments akin to the following:
“Nobody needs a 15-round ammunition magazine unless they are a domestic terrorist or a gangster.” - Bryan Miller, Executive Director, Heeding God's Call (a faith-based group committed to reducing gun violence)
I understand where Mr. Miller is coming from, and he may even be correct in the strictest sense (how many things does anyone really need?), but there is a difference between a "need" and a "right". What is a right, if not something one can do without a requirement of proving need? I despise racist hate speech, for example, and would agree that no one needs to spew that kind of garbage, but I also strongly believe in the right of free speech. The first amendment is in "the top ten", collectively known as the Bill of Rights (not the Bill of Needs) - as is the second. Do we really want to start a legal precedent of having the government decide if individual rights are really "necessary"?

Another point on which I find myself in agreement with the right is the rather amorphous methodology of defining the term "assault rifle". The term itself seems engineered toward negativity, as an assault is typically considered a bad thing, outside of war. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 banned some guns by model, but most due to having certain attachments or capabilities, including grips, adjustable stocks, and other largely cosmetic enhancements. In some cases, a banned "assault rifle" was nearly identical to a legal rifle, and gun manufacturers were able to bypass restrictions in many cases with very slight modifications. The 1994 ban was passed with bipartisan support (even President Ronald Reagan lobbied for its passage) but expired in 2004. Since then, a number of weapons have been unofficially given the label, even if they would not have qualified for it by the terms of that now-expired legislation.

According to the official study by the National Institute of Justice, the ban had little impact on overall gun violence, in part because (even before the ban) such weapons constituted such a small minority of those used in violent crime. While certain high-profile cases have caused a national focus on certain models (like the AR-15), even a legal rifle can be used for illegal purposes. In fact, any focus on rifles is somewhat off the mark, as the majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns. As a comparison, more people are murdered by blunt objects each year than by rifles.

Agreement with the Left

Perhaps the Church of England can't have extreme points of view, but apparently there are no such limitations within the GOP. According to Public Policy Polling, half of Republican primary voters believed (even in 2011) that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Additionally, the majority of right-leaning voters (in a 2009 Gallup poll) thought that President Obama would "attempt to ban the sale of guns in the United States". 

I have already stated that I have a good deal of agreement with my more conservative friends on the scope of the second amendment. However, the more extreme assumptions of the far right seem irrational, from my perspective. For example, while we agree that the second amendment does guarantee the right of gun ownership (and legal use), I must add that no freedom is absolute. If you joke about explosives or hijacking an aircraft while going through the airport's security checkpoint, do not be fooled into thinking that you will be able to successfully defend yourself from any charges by claiming "freedom of speech". Use of marijuana (outside of Colorado or Washington) is still illegal, even if a Rastafarian calls it an attack on religious freedom. The tenth amendment (at least after the Civil War) can't be interpreted as to allow for slavery. All rights are still subject to some measure of regulation, and for my part, I do not equate regulation with infringement. I have a right to vote (and I urge everyone to do so, no matter who they support) - but I also must register to vote months before election day, a de facto waiting period. Additionally, in the state of Indiana my registration does undergo a limited background check: according to, the registration database "also exchanges data with the...Department of Correction to...remove incarcerated voters convicted of crimes." By the logic of the NRA, the government is obviously aiming here to remove my ability to vote.

The National Rife Association itself illustrates the recent drift toward the extreme: as recently as 1999 (in the wake of the Columbine tragedy), NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stated, "we think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone." Mr. LaPierre has recently (and quite emphatically) reversed his opinion on the matter, even though 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks. The growing distance between the leadership of the NRA and its members was cited by Adolphus Busch VI in his high-profile resignation from the NRA last year, which he blasted as "dominated by manufacturing interests." As a mouthpiece for companies looking to sell more guns, reliance on the NRA as an authority on gun matters makes about as much sense as relying on Hostess as an authority on nutrition.

The earlier argument against the Assault Rifle Ban, that criminals can use another model nearly identical, also works the other way. While the NRA and others on the right have suggested that they desire certain models for defense, other (legal/non-banned) models would work just as well. I have heard several people suggest that this or that rifle, or even guns in general, works much like a magic wand, able to prevent any tragedy. A gun is simply a tool. Buying or having a gun in itself does not make one safe - it is still a contest, assuming the adversary also is armed. The best gun in the world can still be useless against the worst; such violent situations have many factors, almost all of them out of your control. Will you be able to access it in time (robbers, rapists, and murderers typically will not politely announce themselves and/or their intentions), and if so, are you able to fire more quickly and more accurately than your attacker? If self-defense is one's purpose for a gun, then regular training is also essential. Imagine if I suggested that if I only could buy the same running shoes Usain Bolt uses, then I'd simply be able to run down anyone that tried to dash off with my wallet.

I know that (some on) the right are fond of suggesting that, if only the school hadn't been a gun free zone, then lives would have been saved. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples otherwise: Reagan was shot while standing feet from armed guards. Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and reportedly the most lethal sniper in American military history, was shot and killed on a shooting range. Unfortunately, another situation occurred just yesterday in which a man and a woman in Las Vegas shot two armed police officers, and when an armed citizen attempted to confront the duo, he was also shot and killed. There are times when a "bad guy with a gun" is stopped by a "good guy with a gun", but more often (at least in cases of mass shootings), the bad guy is stopped by his own gun.  Carrying even the best weapon, with years of training, is not a guarantee of safety for the individual or for society.

Still, many have argued that the real reason for the second amendment is to protect us from our own leaders. Rising conservative star Dr. Ben Carson recently wrote that the amendment was designed to be "a deterrent to the development of a tyrannical central government", and he is not alone in this idea. Such a stance is understandable, especially in an age in which the vast majority of Americans (not just the party opposite the President) does not feel adequately represented. I may also go so far as to say that our founding fathers may have had a similar idea in mind while assembling the Bill of Rights, but it simply breaks down under logical scrutiny, at least in today's world.

Firstly, while government guns are seriously outnumbered by those in private hands, even a million AR-15s are no match for one M4 Sherman tank, a single battleship, or a couple of Tomahawk missiles. One might be able to shoot down a single drone, but to use Tony Stark's words, "there is no version of this where you come out on top." If this dreaded scenario ever takes place, a host of handguns and shotguns would be all but useless.

It is interesting to note that the people I know who are most "pro-gun" are also often quite vocal about their support for "our troops", the men and women who serve in the American armed forces. They tend to be quite patriotic, and yet they often rail against the government. More than once, a Republican candidate has put out a lightly veiled threat about an armed revolution. In a recent campaign, Republican candidate for Senate Sharron Angle said "...if this, this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those second amendment remedies" (Sarah Palin and Rick Perry have each made similar comments). I wonder if any of them have thought that idea out. I know it's easy to stir up fear or hate of the incumbent one is running against, and I am sure that public opinion polling showed that such comments were popular especially with the Tea Party (a group that named itself after an act of vandalism and theft as an acceptable means of protest) - but if the big bad government comes for you, it won't be President Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or any other suited government official knocking on your door. It will be these same, uniformed men and women that the right claims to support. So, Mr. Let-them-just-try-to-take-my-gun, which of these American soldiers are you planning on killing first?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Power of X

"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery." - Malcolm X

There once was a pharaoh (c. 1350 BC) by the name of Amenhotep IV. For the first five years of his reign, he was much like any ruler before him. He managed a growing nation and an evolving government, lived in relative luxury, and considered himself divine (or, at the least, allowed all of Egypt to do so). After five years on the throne, however, it appears that Amenhotep IV had some sort of epiphany. He declared that Egypt should turn away from polytheism and instead worship only (one) God, which he called Aten. He penned a revolutionary hymn that declared the universe was created by one sole god, and denying his own claim to divinity, declared himself a mere servant of Aten (officially changing his name to Akhenaten).

The nation of Egypt was less than receptive. When Akhenaten died twelve years later, his edicts and religious beliefs died with him. Egypt returned rather quickly to its traditional mythology, and Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun (better known as "King Tut") abandoned the temple built by his father. I would submit that this return to traditional mythology, however, was more a matter of cultural identity than any matter of religious conviction. While Akhenaten desired a discussion about the nature of God, the focus of Egyptian mythology was earthly: explanations of seasons, justification of the ruling class, and most importantly, narrative explorations of human nature through a host of superhuman characters. These characters, though called "gods", were merely projections of humanity: they had human desires and weaknesses, they had limited abilities, they fought amongst themselves, and could be punished or even killed.

In many other times and places, a similar mythology would repeat in Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and Japan. Though names and specifics would change, the myths would continue to vicariously explore the human condition and provide cautionary tales about love and hate, grace and greed, honor and treachery, life and death. Today, our mythology - no less powerful - does not require a specific religion or even ethnic identity. We consider them fictional, but enjoy the stories no less; we get them from people like George Lucas and Stan Lee.

While I will have to wait another year and a half for the new Star Wars movie, I did have the chance to check out the latest Marvel flick, X-Men: Days of Future Past, yesterday afternoon. Like the gods of ancient mythology, the X-Men are many. They have various abilities and limitations. They know pain, loss, love, and hope. They hunger for justice and yet argue about how best to obtain it. In other words, their struggles are our struggles.

The X-Men were created in the early sixties, and as such, the stories reflected much of what was going on in the United States at that time, primarily the American Civil Rights Movement. In an August 2000 interview with The Guardian, Stan Lee explained:

"I couldn't have everybody bitten by a radioactive spider or zapped with gamma rays, and it occurred to me that if I just said that they were mutants, it would make it easy. Then it occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time."
Specifically, Professor Charles Xavier represented the idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr., while the character of Magneto in many ways parallels the life of Malcolm X: terrorized as a youth, he harbors "the hate that hate produced", willing to fight for his own people by any means necessary. They are not sworn enemies, as was prevalent in comic books of the time, but friends who are brought into conflict by opposing methods toward a common cause.

Beyond the Civil Rights Movement, parallels have been made to many other "us v them" conflicts, with mutants being equated with foreigners, homosexuals, religious minorities, or even political idealists. The characters themselves are quite diverse: Archangel is a privileged "pretty boy", Nightcrawler is a devout Catholic from Germany, and Storm is a reformed childhood pickpocket later worshipped as a goddess in Africa. The diversity of ideas among these characters has allowed for many a dialogue by proxy, sadly lacking in the public arena.

As a long-time X-Men fan and comic book collector, I had many issues with all of the X-Men movies (Wolverine is not six feet tall), but I was pleased with this latest movie. Specifics aside, the film did a great job of staying with the message of the X-Men, which I hope will not be lost on those who see it. As "Stan the Man" said, "the whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story, to show there's good in every person." It may sound idealistic, but none of us need mutant powers to take a stand against ignorance.
The whole underlying principal of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person.”
The whole underlying principal of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person


Sunday, May 11, 2014

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

It was during an October 2008 campaign stop that America was introduced to instant celebrity Samuel J. Wurzelbacher - or, as he was to be more commonly known, "Joe the Plumber". As then-candidate Barack Obama was making the rounds in Holland, Ohio, he was approached by Wurzelbacher with a pointed question concerning a hypothetical small business purchase, which he identified as "the American dream":
"I’m being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream," he said, in reference to the candidate's previously-stated plan to allow a partial expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
"It's not that I want to punish your success," Obama replied. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance at success, too… My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re gonna be better off [...] if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody."  
Wurzelbacher later incorrectly described this proposal as "socialism".

While "Joe" happened to be the man in front of the cameras, he was certainly not the only person at the time to label the now-president a socialist - and many still do. For many years, talk about "redistribution of wealth" became less frequent and less passionate, but two news stories in the past week or so have brought discussions of wealth (re)distribution to the forefront once more: the recent Senate vote against a minimum wage increase, and Pope Francis' comments at the UN in support of "legitimate redistribution" (though he had touched on the idea before).

Minimum Wage

The purchasing power of an hourly wage decreases over time due to inflation.
Most people I know, conservative or liberal, agree on at least the existence of a minimum wage, but if we are to have one at all, it must be raised regularly, lest it become meaningless (can you imagine still allowing a quarter-per-hour minimum wage?) The red line on this graph is in "2012 dollars", showing that the minimum wage in 1968 (just under $2) was like getting just over $10 today. Of course, that was the highest point on the graph, and if one looks more broadly at the past 60 years or so, our current minimum is not too far below that average.

So, why is this such an issue? There are many factors, not the least of which is politics. Each side believes they have something to gain by taking their stance: Democrats will now be able to say that they acted "democratically", in that they fought to increase the minimum just as the majority of Americans favor raising it. Republicans, long favored by business owners, will be able to demonstrate that they sought to keep labor costs down in what they consider a still-fragile economy. It is not a coincidence that this push came up just a few months before the mid-term elections.

Another reason, however, is that it ties in to the larger narrative about wealth distribution. Even though the "Occupy" movement failed miserably by having no common consensus more than dissatisfaction with corporate America (and by being horribly disorganized as a collective force), the legitimate discontent that fueled them remains widespread. Corporate profits recently hit all-time highs, and worker productivity continues to climb, even though average wages have remained flat. Many companies have enacted wage reductions in the last decade and/or have decreased (or eliminated) yearly increases, leaving many, myself included, with less nominal income than ten years ago. However, the wealthiest few have, during this same time, managed to see great gains. As such, the current situation could be accurately described by replacing the phrase "open war" in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers with "redistribution of wealth":

Théoden: "I know what it is you want of me, but I...will not risk (have) redistribution of wealth."
Aragorn: "Redistribution of wealth is upon you, whether you would risk (have) it or not."

Legitimate Redistribution?

Of course, there is no free lunch; everything has its cost. Much like the first law of thermodynamics states that energy remains constant (it can be neither created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another), wealth and power are finite pools. Even the very existence of life on Earth requires taking life: though I know several people who do not eat meat for ethical reasons (and respect their decision), they can't survive without killing, even if only plants. Living things sustain themselves by eating other living things.

In similar fashion, the government has no money of its own, which means anything it spends, it has to either borrow from another nation, or take from its own people in the form of taxation. Just as I don't feel it is wrong to eat, I do not consider taxation to be a moral wrong, though some have equated it with theft. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes once remarked that "taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society", and I would agree that taxation is more akin to membership dues rather than a penalty.

Still, the amount of taxes paid, and the distribution of that revenue, continue to be greatly debated, although not using consistent criteria. For example, while many accused Obama of "socialism" based on a proposal to raise the tax rate on those making more than 250k a year back to 39 percent, the top tier during the majority of Ronald Reagan's presidency was 50%, and no one accused him of being a socialist. Any program has a cost, but merely having a cost is no reason in itself to oppose something; the question is, will it work - will it be worth the cost?

To be quite clear, economic equality is an impossibility. Though both parties are fond of including words like "fair" and "unfair" in such discussions, they don't really apply. Progressive taxation may be called unfair, but the government must pull revenue from where it lies, and certainly not everyone is born into equal resources. The more wealth becomes concentrated, the less tax policy can tax all people equally; a well that has already been drained cannot be drained again. Perhaps the questions should revolve less around indefinable "fairness", and more about sustainability.

To use an analogy, let us look at the popular board game, Monopoly. In that game, all players begin the game with equal resources. There is no progressive taxation, the rules apply equally to all players, and everyone gets the same $200 for completing the square (how many turns it will take to do so is beyond the player's control). Even with such "fairness", the game can't last forever, even though it may feel like it - someone will inevitably walk away with all the money and property that used to belong to everyone (and all "fair and square"). Of course, being a board game, losing does not mean you can no longer keep your (real) home or afford to send your kids to college.

The American Dream?

The "American dream", as I understand it, is perhaps best illustrated in the works of American author Horatio Alger, Jr. His stories were typically variations on the "rags to riches" theme, about the penniless lad who started working for some rich and powerful corporate mogul, and who eventually caught his attention through his character and work ethic. Certainly, capitalism can't succeed without some measure of "legitimate" inequality, whereby those that work harder or longer should be entitled to greater monetary reward. However, it appears that American society has moved away from rewarding hard work and toward rewarding wealth itself.

The American dream is not merely about allowing an unlimited monetary potential, but about providing opportunity to anyone willing to work. Two years ago, on a trip to Washington, DC, I noticed the following quote at the Roosevelt Memorial, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." A similar comment was made by Barack Obama in his 2009 Inaugural Address: "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

Like a fountain requires water to fall back to the base, a free market simply can't long exist without redistribution. A progressive tax system is one way the government can help replenish the base, but certainly not the only way, and I admit that some proposals concerning redistribution (downward) don't involve the government at all. The ideal, as explained to me by conservative Christians, is a system by which individuals voluntarily provide for the needs of those without, perhaps facilitated by the Church. I fully agree that such a system would be ideal, but it is hardly a realistic option. The average church spends the vast majority of its budget on itself: staff wages, maintenance of facilities, and programs aimed at religious instruction. Less than three percent of the monies received by a church (though they are considered charitable contributions) will go to help anyone outside of it. I do not fault the typical church's leadership for this as much as those of us that provide the income; I'd like to think that the Church would provide more humanitarian aid than it does (relative to what it keeps for itself) if they had more money to spend - obviously there is a de facto minimum cost of operation. I would like to live in a world where people were happy to give to others (I'd also like to live in a world without illiteracy or war), but I would rather the poor be aided by an inefficient government program that obtains its money from less-than-voluntary means, than for virtually no aid to be provided at all.

One point that has been made by those in opposition to raising either the minimum wage or tax rates is the likelihood that any additional costs encountered by business will merely be passed on to consumers (rather than reductions being made elsewhere, such as executive compensation). While this is a fair assumption, the same could be said for any cost. Should we then all demand that executive compensation be capped at a maximum, because the money paid to the CEO ultimately comes from our wallets as consumers? Should we ban business seminars in Vegas? It just seems odd to demand fiscal conservatism on the low end, but not the top - whether we are talking about a corporate or national budget. Such selectivity allows for continued redistribution of wealth - but only in one direction.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Keeping It Real


Christians love a good story.
The typical sermon centers on a few specific verses, but reading those few verses would take all of four minutes. If the pastor or speaker adds a few personal thoughts on those verses, or gives some additional information about the history and culture of the time period, or whips out a word or two in Greek or Hebrew – maybe twenty minutes. What seems to flesh out a sermon (and more importantly grab the attention of the congregation), however, is the extra-biblical story, and I’ve never heard a sermon that didn’t include at least one or two.
These stories might be telling of a personal experience growing up, or of a news story from a couple of years ago, or even a humorous anecdote. There is certainly nothing wrong with telling stories, as even untrue stories can illustrate things that are true. In V for Vendetta (2005), Evey Hammond tells the masked vigilante known as “V” a bit about her parents:
“My father was a writer. You would’ve liked him. He used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”

Even Jesus, who describes himself in part as “the truth” in John 14:6, told many stories that not even the strictest Biblical literalists believe were actually true in themselves: stories about a man buying a field for hidden treasure, or a persistent widow pleading for justice, or a roadside mugging and a kind Samaritan. His audience (typically the disciples) understood the concept of a story intended to teach a principle rather than to relay factual events. The idea was that the listener was supposed to figure out the meaning behind the story rather than to defend the authenticity of the details within; fact checkers were not necessary because no one was claiming that the story was true or condemning skeptics who remained unconvinced that the events relayed literally happened.
Today’s stories are quite different. Even as a relative introvert, rarely does a week go by that I am not told some untrue story by a Christian friend or acquaintance. I have no problem with untrue stories in themselves – I personally have told an untrue story many times about a piece of string that walks into a bar – but the ones I hear or read on Facebook are almost always presented as factual, often leading off with “this is a true story” (causing the sender to literally bear false witness). While there is some overlap in a few cases, I've noticed that these widely-circulated tales fall into one of four categories.
Overstated Anecdote
Actual Homeless Guy - Not A Pastor
In my opinion, this is the most innocent of the falsehoods. It's really just a modern parable meant to point out some truth, and would be a great story if it wasn't so bent on being portrayed as real. A recent example would be the story of pastor Jeremiah Steepek, who allegedly disguises himself as a homeless man on the day he is to be introduced to his new megachurch congregation. It's a great story with a nice message, but portrayed as factual, it is easily discredited. Obviously, a megachurch would have an online presence by which the pastor could at least be verified as a real person. Additionally, the photo attached (reportedly of Steepek) had already been published and the man identified as an actual homeless man. Apparently after writing a nice little story, it was just too much work for the author to take a photo himself, rather than just typing "homeless guy" into the Flickr search. These stories simply aim for the "warm fuzzy" and are practically engineered to go viral in Christian circles, the equivalent of cute kitten pictures among pet lovers.
Proof of God (or the End of Days)
Yes, all state-college professors are angry atheists...
Such stories are basically the overstated anecdote on steroids, often based on urban legends. They are more aggressive, usually leaning on a stereotype (such as the angry intellectual atheist, or the violent Muslim) and yet maintaining the claim of being a true story.  The picture of actor Kevin Sorbo here is from the recent film God Is Not Dead, which does not claim to be non-fiction, but it also has striking similarities to the "true story of something that happened a few years ago at USC" involving dropped chalk as a proof of the existence of God. Not surprisingly, Snopes reached out to USC and was informed that nothing of the sort has ever happened there. Having attended a (secular) state college myself, I also find the idea of 300 students staying in their seats to hear one other student share his faith to be quite preposterous.
As a believer, these sorts of claims are very disturbing. For one thing, especially in the age of Google, these are easily discredited. But where finding out that Pastor Steepek may be fictional is of little consequence, these claims put the veracity of Christianity itself on the line. For example, if you claim that Noah's Ark has been located in Turkey and it is found to be completely false, does this not throw the entire biblical narrative of the flood into question?
Additionally, I wonder about the faith of those that rely on such legends and falsehoods. Not only are they spreading misinformation to others in direct opposition to one of the ten commandments, but they appear to need such stories as a type of evidence to support their faith, as if someone can't believe in a Christian eschatology without believing an urban legend about a red heifer or believe in even a literal interpretation of Joshua 10 without buying a story that NASA discovered evidence of a missing day. For my part, my religious beliefs do not hinge on tales of modern "proofs".
Political Nonsense
Yep...this was in Indiana.
To be very frank, these are perhaps the most pathetic falsehoods, and certainly among the most frequently shared. They are simply political attack ads, sometimes granted a sense of legitimacy by "Christian" organizations. The timing is always interesting, as some furor about an incumbent (most often President Barack Obama) always seems to be gaining momentum before a primary or national vote. For the record, Obama did not change the Oval Office to "look Muslim", he did not cancel the National Day of Prayer, and he was not born in Kenya. He did not make free speech a felony. I could go on and on, but there would be no point...All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.
To be fair, political falsehoods are not new, nor are they limited to just Democrats or Republicans. But regardless of political leanings, anyone of integrity (Christian or not) should refrain from spreading misinformation whether or not they agree with a person, or who they hope wins an election. Putting politics over ethics is certain to destroy one's credibility. Again, in the age of information, just about anyone can check your facts instantaneously - don't be a Liar for Jesus.
Playing the Victim 
Or maybe it was building code violations and fraud.
These are also quite frequent in the Facebook feed, often visible to me due to a "like" granted to a post by Focus on the Family, the American Center for Law and Justice, or other religious-political hybrid organization (that post often includes a request for donations to help the fight against an imaginary or overstated injustice).  Once recent outrage was over the arrest of Michael Salman, characterized by some religious groups as persecution by the state of Arizona against a Christian doing nothing more than holding a bible study in his home. The story was so misconstrued that the city of Phoenix had to defend itself with an official "fact sheet" detailing the city's actual complaints.
Many of these sorts of posts invoke the ACLU Boogeyman, like the claim that they are trying to remove crosses from cemeteries or to stop prayer within the United States Marine Corps. Others focus on (and some even authored by) Christian "celebrities" who claim they are being targeted: "liberals and atheists" are targeting Duck Dynasty, Facebook is trying to censor Kirk Cameron promoting his new film, and country stations are refusing to play a song by Diamond Rio entitled In God We Still Trust. Oddly enough, it has been my own personal experience that the people most hostile toward my beliefs are not governmental authorities, but Christians themselves.
Follow the Money
As a churchgoing teen in the late 1980s, I would often hear (and honestly enjoy) the routines of "Christian comedian" Mike Warnke. I couldn't have cared less about his many claims from some past life (which eventually were all exposed as complete fabrications); I just liked listening to this goofy guy with clean but genuinely funny jokes, many with religious overtones. It wasn't until he was off the radar that I learned that he rode to fame based on lies. Like several televangelists of the time, his gig was up once his lies were exposed; before that time, he was held up as a sort of living proof of the power of God to transform a life. His story was custom-made for the exact hopes and longings of a select group.

Yes, but is "Heaven is for Real" for real?
In just a few days, TriStar Pictures will release a movie version of the incredibly popular book Heaven is For Real, a story custom-made for the exact hopes and longings of a select group. There is no indication that this book/movie is a fraud, but I must confess that I would personally be more persuaded that the story was factual if the Burpo family had not profited financially (and greatly) from the book. I would caution those who strongly defend the tale as true, however, to acknowledge that just as there is no evidence that the book is a fraud, there is also no evidence that the story is true, no matter how much one would like it to be. Not only do the details of NDEs (near death experiences) vary, but I was once (no, twice) the parent of a four year old. Maybe a child wished to entertain or impress his father, or maybe the four-year-old never said anything he was reported to have said. Maybe the tales are completely true. The only thing that is certain is that it makes for a good milkshake - and Christians will drink it up.